Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hasta luego from Madrid

We had two nights and a full day in Madrid before catching our flight back to Seattle, and spent it walking around seeing what was new since the last time we were here about 20 years ago. Recession? You'd never know it from the crowds at the cafes and tapas bars and on the streets at night. One nice change: Many of the streets have been pedestrianized. It's possible to walk most of the way between the Royal Palace and the Prado, for instance, on streets with no cars. The scene above is Saturday night on a pedestrian street near the Plaza Del Sol.

The new Metro (subway) link from the airport into the center of town is quick, efficient and cheap – one of the few bargains given the dollar's slide against the euro. Spain used to be a relatively cheap destination for Americans, but not anymore. 

We booked our last night at the Hostal Luz. The Luz is one of those little hotels on the third floor of an old building that might have been run down a few years ago, but has since been spiffed up with remodeled rooms and private baths. We paid 69 euros for a roomy double with a new toilet and shower. The location near Opera and the Plaza del Sol was excellent, and the weather a beautiful 76 and sunny. We walked across town to the museum quarter, where, besides the Prado museum, there are several interesting sites within easy walking distance.

Above is the Royal Botanical Garden, 20 acres of trees, shurbs, plants and flowers in a beautiful park-like setting. Admission is a bargain at 2 euros. Nearby, we spotted this cafe. Any guesses what it is? A friend of mine guessed that it was a wine bar. Notice the comfy faux leather high-back chairs, the wood- grain tables and high windows.

This is a McDonald's across from the botanical garden. You can sit by the windows and relax over a beer with your Big Mac ($5 at current exchange rates). I'd say Starbucks is in for some competition of McDonald's decides to import this concept to the U.S.

Normally a train station would not be on a list of sites worth seeing, but Madrid's Atocha station near the Prado is worth a stop to see the tropical garden added in 1992.

We decided to pass on a visit to the Prado this time, and instead take in some of the public art along the Paseo del Prado, then wander around the galleries in the modern art museum (Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) housed inside Madrid's first public hospital. What a wonderful use of an old building this is. A glass elevator carries visitors to the various floors, with views all over the city. Picasso's Guernica is to this museum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre in Paris. It's impressive, but there's much more to see, including lots of Miro and Dali. This is a very accessable museum, and the price is right on Saturdays after 2:30 p.m. when admission is free.

We didn't take full advantage of eating at the tapas bars, given the high prices and the crowds. Even “pinchos," what we could call small plates, were 4 euros and up for two or three small bites, and that was the stand-up-at-the-bar price. Prices go up 50 cents-1 euro if you sit at a table. No doubt this is fun way to eat. Order a drink and it comes with a free tapa, usually olives or potatoes.

Hard to say where our travels will take us next, but most likely to Asia, Eastern Europe, South America or the Middle East where the dollars buys more than in the big Western European cities. For now, hasta luego from Madrid, a wonderful destination in itself and a convenient jumping of point for a visit to Morocco.

Friday, October 30, 2009

"America Good Now''

We met this shopkeeper as we were walking our last morning in Essaouria. His name is Ahmed, and when he found out that we were Americans, he went behind the counter to find his Obama button.

"American good now,'' he said. That seems to be the general feeling among the people we've met, both Moroccan and European. It's nice to see attitudes changing, but one that persists is that Americans generally have or are willing to spend more money than anyone else.

We're getting more skilled at bargaining and finding out the real price of things such as a taxi ride. The new riad where we're staying our last night in Marrakech offered a private taxi to meet us at the bus station for 10 euros, about $15. We decided to pass and get a taxi on our own, but when the bus arrived, we realized we looked like an easy mark. It wasn't likely any of the drivers who swooped in would likely agree to use the meter.

  "Americans,'' I overheard one say, pushing away another driver to make sure he got to us first. That was our clue to go with our Plan B and walk a block to the Ibis Hotel down the street, relax over our first beer in several days, and then out on the street and flag down a taxi. Before we did, we asked the desk clerk how much it might cost. Around $7 was his estimate "because they'll see you with suitcases and won't agree to put the meter on.''

The first taxi we flagged stopped. "Meter,'' we said, pointing. The driver hesitated for a second, then nodded and took us to our hotel. The fare was  $1.

We're splurging our last night on a room at the four-room Dar Attajmil It's a very classy place for 90 euros, about $135, a night. It's owned by an Italian woman from Milan who moved to Morocco nine years ago. There's  banana tree in the courtyard that reaches almost to the second floor where the rooms are. Surrounding the tree downstairs are little nooks and cranies with comfortable chairs and cushions for relaxing. Breakfast is served on the rooftop terrace with this view over the Medina.

Our last dinner was at the Chegrouni cafe on the square where we ate our first night in Marrakech with Holly Henke, a Times colleague who was ending her trip to Morocco on the day we arrived. Our favorite was the kefta tangine, a baked dish of little meatballs, eggs and tomatoes. We found it on several restaurants, but none were as tasty as the Chegrouni's $7 version.
Dessert was spice tea and spice cake at our favorite tea stall. The vendor recognized us as repeat customers and gave us an extra scoop of cake. I could feel Marrakech growing on us as we became more comfortable with the ways things work in a culture that's very different from ours.

Afterwards we walked around thinking about how to get rid of the last of our loose change. The male belly dancers dressed in pink and white satin gowns? The snake charmers playing their flutes? A few people beg here, but many provide clever entertainment or provide some small service to earn cash.

Near the women doing henna tatoos, we spotted the blind men. Seven of them were lined up in a row, sitting in chairs, smiling and singing. We dropped a coin in each man's cup and said goodbye to Morocco.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Camel Couscous and Berber villages in Essaouira

 Almost the minute we stepped off the bus from Marrakech and walked through a stone archway into the walled city of Essaouria, we knew we had finally found a sliver of the real Morocco we hoped to experience on this short trip. During the 60s, Essaouria was on the hippie trail (Jimi Hendrix stopped here). Today its beaches and sea air attract mostly French tourists. It's on the Atlantic coast, 110 miles west of Marrakech. With its stone buildings painted white and blue doors and shutters, it looks like a small town in Greece or Brittany. Brittany probably makes more sense since the Sultan hired a French architect to lay out of the medina.

We're staying at this small guesthouse called Les Matins Bleus. It was built in 1850 as a private school and later turned into the family home of the two brothers and cousin who now it run it as a hotel. It's down this alley, next door to a mosque, so not only do we wake up to the sound of seagulls, we hear a very musical and long Call to Prayer again every morning around 5 a.m.

It was foggy when we got here which made wandering around the medina fun and mysterious. Essaouria is a very friendly town, much more so than Marrakech. Many of the men dress in long, green robes and knit caps and many of the women wear brightly colored flowing robes. The air smells of sea salt, spices and grilled fish.

Carpet shops and little workshops are tucked into alleys where craftsmen use the local wood to make drums and inlaid boxes. There's a Cafe de France, of course, on the main square, where we spent a relaxing hour or so drinking mint tea and watching the local women walk arm in arm in the afternoon. The scene reminded me of the Italian passagiatta.

In the fish souk, you can pick out something from the day's catch (sardines are the local favorite) and have them grilled on the spot and served with olives, bread and salad for about $4. Unlike in Marrakech where most people don't want to be photographed, or want to be paid for a picture, people here don't seem to mind (We always ask, of course). We had dinner at a little restaurant called La Decoverte, run by a French couple from Lyon who also own an ecocotoursm company where we booked a day's walk in the countryside. On the menu was couscous with camel! Of course we had to try it. The camel tasted a little like liver. Don't know that I'd try it again, but I loved the preparation with raisins, onions and garbanzo beans.

The day we spent with Ecotourism et Randonnee was a fantastic glimpse into life outside Moroccan cities. The desert countryside around Essaouira is dotted with traditional Berber villages. (Berbers are ethnic Moroccans who were here before the Arabs invaded).  Our first stop was this market held once a week in a nearby village.

Everyone travels from their villages by donkey, so instead of a parking lot for cars, there's a "donkey park'' where hundreds of donkeys are tied up, waiting for their masters to load them up with purchases.

I asked these men if I could take their picture. I intended to buy a loaf of their bread, but then found out it was "day old'' bread'' they were selling to feed to animals.

This man was selling mint which grows like a weed here and is used in cooking and by huge handfuls to make mint tea. We had some at a little tea stall in the market where our guide, an Englishman named Todd Casson who lives in Essaouria, bought some "people'' bread for us to dip into a bowl of the local olive oil.

 After the market, we got in a van drove a few miles for the start of a 5-mile walk through a desert "Argan'' forest where we walked along donkey paths and ran into villagers on their way to and from the markets.

There were eight of us in our group, six French and the two of us plus English and French-speaking guides. The highpoint was a lunch stop in the home of a Berber family where we all sat on the floor on pillows and carpets and shared an excellent tangine, a traditional Moroccan stew, made with potatoes, carrots and lamb. Fadna Bella, above, our hostess and the matriarch of the family, ended the meal by making us mint tea. When we left, she blew us a kiss goodbye.

Olive trees grow abundantly here, but unique to the area is the hearty Argan tree, similar in appearance to the olive tree, but grown only in this part of Morroco. It bears a fruit from which a nutty-flavored oil is extracted by drying the fruit, splitting the pits to extract the seeds and then grinding the seeds to produce the oil. It's all done by hand by women working in cooperatives, owned and run by women. It was fascinating to watch these women at the Marijana Cooperative take a small nut and crack it open by pounding it with a stone against another stone. The process is very labor-intensive and the oil is expensive, but production and sales provide a livelihood for many poor villagers. There's a big conservation effort on to save the trees for oil production as opposed to firewood or goat grazing.  

We're off to Marrakech on the bus again today for one last night before flying back to Madrid. It will be Halloween when we get to Spain and the day before the Day of The Dead, so it will be an interesting time to be there!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tea and Chocolate Not

Every evening at sunset, dozens of open-air kitchens set up on the Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech's central square. The scene is like a giant dinner theater with all sorts of "entertainment'' going on all around and clouds of smoke everywhere from the outdoor grills. Crowds gather around drummers, herb and black magic sellers and women sitting on plastic stools telling fortunes or doing henna tattoos.

Our favorites are the tea vendors with their big brass urns and what looks like large mounds of chocolate cake.

"The surprise is that's it's not 'tea' and it's not chocolate,'' someone told us. The tea looks like the mint tea we've been drinking everywhere - little glasses of hot water infused with bunches of fresh mint and lumps of sugar. But these vendors are actually brewing a tea made from 20 spices and herbs. It has a strong taste of cinnamon and cloves, and it's served with a scoop from a mound of cake that's  spice cake, not chocolate, studded with almonds. Tea and cake cost about 50 cents. We've

been back several times! Notice the picture of the two women below this vendor's stall.  Each vendor decorates his stall differently. This one is ringed his with blue and pink flowers. Jars of spices are lined up on the bar. A framed photo of Mecca hangs next to the urn.

The snail sellers were another favorite. They set up in front of the orange juice stalls starting every afternoon around 4 p.m. I asked these locals what they thought. "C'est bon,'' one of them answered. Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912-1956. French is widely spoken, although I found it useful to learn a few words in Arabic such as "Hello'' and "Thank you.'' A small bowl of snails cost about 75 cents, and they were very good!

We spent a little time exploring the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter which once had a large population of Jews before many relocated to Israel after World War II.  The area is run-down compared to other parts of Marrakech, but less touristy and more laid back. Spice and herb vendors set up elaborate displays like this one to lure customers.

 I think it would be easy to come to Marrakech and be overwhelmed by the feeling of constantly being berated by hustlers and touts wanting to sell you something. Short-changing, and over-charging is common. There are lots and lots of European tourists and ex-pats with valuable euros to spend, so bargaining is essential when buying anything. Unlike in some other countries where the "first'' price might be a half to two-thirds higher than the real price, here it can be as much as six times higher than what a merchant will accept in the end. We haven't bought much so far, and some shopkeepers don't take kindly to "just looking.'' Tom has been "accused'' of being Jewish, being from Texas and needing viagra by various touts who became angry because he didn't buy.

There's a few minor historical sites, but what we've enjoyed most is what I like to think of as the museum of the streets. Some of our best times have spent people-watching at a cafe over glasses of mint tea and a plate of olives.

We spotted this man while taking a morning walk around our neighborhood. He goes from shop to shop offering to perfume the air with whiffs of incense.

Jemma El Fna is almost as interesting in the morning as it is at night. This man dodged motorbikes to drive his donkey cart through the square.

And finally, more interesting than actual shopping was watching these local shoppers cross the square laden with bags after a visit to the souks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waking up to the Call to Prayer

Our two-hour easyJet flight from Madrid brought us to Marrakech where we woke up this morning to the Call to Prayer coming from the mosque near the Dar Maria, a little riad tucked into an allley in the medina where we'll be staying the next few days.

The bus from the airport let us off in the Jemaa El Fna, above, the main square and a thousand-year-old gathering place that fills up with orange juice vendors, date sellers and snake charmers by day, and a big, smokey outdoor market at night with hundreds of outdoor food stalls, story tellers and henna tattoo artists.

Just outside this square is as far as cars can go. From here, it's all narrow streets, wide enough for donkey carts and motorcycles and people like us, rolling suitcases, trying to find their hotels. Young boys build whole businesses out of helping lost people find their way. Tom did an amazing job of using a compass and several maps to get us pretty close, but with no signs or markers and lots of little alleys leading everywhere, it would have been impossible to find the exact alley to turn into without help. Three guys offered all at once,

but it was worth the going rate- 75 cents to $1 or so - considering most people take up the hotel on an offer for an airport pick up for $20. Above is the open-air courtyard. Surrounding it are a few small rooms. Breakfast is served on the rooftop terrace with wide view of the town and surrounding Atlas Mountains. The riad is owned by a Spanish woman named Maria and friendly and helpful staff who gave us advice on important details such as how much to pay for a bottle of water (everything is negotiable) or a taxi ride.

 Our "neighbors'' are pastry sellers, egg vendors and lots of hole-in-the-wall shops selling pottery, pounded copper, oil lamps and leather slippers. We're out of the main souks (shopping areas) and close to a former Jewish neighborhood called the Mellah, which we're looking foward to exploring. Alleyways leading to shops and houses are framed by stone archways.

Marrakech has a new town built by the French in the early 20th century outside the walls, but the medina is the place to soak up the atmosphere and local color. Most of the men wear long, white robes and usually a small knit hat. Most women are "covered,'' meaning they wear at least a head scarf. Some younger women don't cover, and many older ones dress like this woman working at her job decorating leather slippers called babouchers.

Everyone wears them, and the traditional color is yellow, but now they're made in many colors, mostly to appeal to tourists. Some are even made in China, but the authentic ones are made by hand right here out of butter-soft goat skin.

Shops and workshops are arranged in the souks according to what the vendors or craftsmen produce or sell- everything from wool hats to leather bags, hammered copper and tin, jewelry and nuts and spices.

These pictures were taken in the the "skinners'' souk where raw animal hides are sold. The blue foam is used as wrapping paper. The man below in black is the shopkeeper. With him are two of his customers. The man in the foreground held up five fingers when I asked him if I could take this picture, indicating he wanted a 5 dirham "donation,'' the equivalent of about 75 cents.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Newspaper Man of Madrid

The high unemployment rate in Spain- nearly 20 percent- means the buskers around Madrid's Plaza Mayor have had to be extra creative when it comes to new "job" opportunities. I was inspired by this man who turned himself into a a living, breathing newspaper. He creates a new "suit'' each day out of "yesterday's news,'' and then sits on the square perfectly still waiting for people to come by, get their picture taken with him, and put  af few coins in his box. I think he is what we'd call a real news man.

It's been at least 20 years since we last visited Madrid, and almost nothing looks familiar, but in a good way. The subway from the airport into town worked perfectly. No hassles. Our little hotel, the Hostal Luz, is on the third floor (reached via an elevator barely big enough for two) of a building off of a pedestrian street close to the Madrid Opera and Plaza Del Sol. Not bad for 69 euros (about $90). The rooms are small, but everything is newly remodeled including the bathrooms.

The weak dollar ($1.50 to the euro) makes most everything else in Madrid seem expensive. We arrrived just about the time all the restaurants were closing down after lunch around 4 p.m. Open all day, however, is the new Mercado de San Miguel near the Plaza Mayor where I bought two "toasts'' for 1 euro each. One was topped with sardines and goat cheese; the other with a fresh sliver of salmon and dill sauce. The market is in a beautiful iron and glass building built in 1916. Well-dressed locals come here for stand-up lunches of wine and platters of cured Iberian ham. Place an order and a butcher slices it on the spot.

Dinner our first night wasn't a very successful find. We forgot that only tourists try to eat before 9 p.m. Most restaurants don't reopen until that time. We settled for a mediocre paella, a salad and a couple of glasses of wine for 30 euro. Oh well, if our money runs out, I guess I can always dress up as a newspaper and earn some extra cash. Not a bad idea for a Halloween costume come to think of it. 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Madrid and Morocco?

Why Madrid and Morocco? I can't help myself. When I see a cheap fare to Europe, I grab it, then assuming it's not a new destination, try to figure out where we can go from there on one of the discount airlines.

When I saw a $630 round-trip fare between Seattle and Madrid a while ago, I couldn't resist, especially since my husband, Tom, and I had been thinking of a short (10-day) trip for fall. Madrid is a lovely city, and if you haven't been there, I'd recommend just staying put, but wanderlust called and I've fantasized for a while about using the discount airline easyJet to get to Marrakech from one of the big European cities.

The easyJet round-trip fare was another $125 each, so assuming the airline doesn't go the way of SkyEurope (the Slovakian discount that just went bust and left thousands stranded), we'll spend a few days on each end of the trip in Madrid and the rest of the time in Morocco. We'll concentrate mainly in Marrakech and also spend a few days in the port town of Essaouria on the Atlantic coast, three hours away by bus.

The six days or so we'll have isn't enough time, of course, and I really can't describe this as a trip to "Morocco,'' given all there is to absorb in visiting a leading Arab nation with a unique blend of Islamic and Western culture. We'll see what we can in the time we have, and if we like it, we'll come back later for more.

Here's a look at where we'll be staying in Marrakech and Essaouria. These are both small "riads,'' or traditional houses built around courtyards inside the medinas - neighborhoods within the old city walls with streets too narrow for cars. Medinas are pedestrian only for the most part, except for donkeys, motorbikes, bicycles and small carts used to haul things including tourists' suitcases.

An adventure it will be! Follow along for reports and photos. And if you've been here, feel free to comment and offer advice.